Joe Biden Rambles Through Iowa

The Democratic front-runner started his weekend by tripping over his own feet.

Joe Biden, wearing aviators, a polo, and khakis, stands on a stage near hay bales.
Joe Biden at the Iowa State Fair on Thursday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

DES MOINES, Iowa—“Just a side note,” the moderator at Joe Biden’s town hall here on Wednesday night said, after the former vice president had just answered a question about criminal justice reform with an 11-minute spiel about that, gun control, the elevation of the Delmarva Peninsula, and so forth, “let’s keep our questions, and answers, shorter so we can get all of our questions in.” She would have to warn him again, later.

The event lasted roughly two hours. In the hour that was left after Biden’s stump speech and various introductions, there was only room for six questions.

The town hall capped a relatively busy schedule for Biden, on his second day of a major swing through Iowa. This is a heavy campaigning weekend in the state for all the Democratic presidential candidates. Each candidate will speak at one point or another at the Iowa State Fair’s “soapbox,” giving a speech, fielding shouted questions from fairgoers, and then moseying about the fairgrounds eating junk food. There’s also a major Iowa Democratic Party fundraiser Friday night called the “Wing Ding,” at which nearly all candidates will speak. Nearly all will also speak the following morning at a gun safety forum quickly organized by Everytown for Gun Safety to address the recent shootings in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio.

But with most candidates still trickling into Des Moines on Thursday, Biden had most of the day to grab attention to himself. And so he did.

[Support Slate’s 2020 coverage. Join Slate Plus.]

“We choose unity over division,” Biden said in the windup to his closing pitch at the state fair soapbox. “We choose science over fiction.” Sure? And then the big finish:

“We choose truth over facts,” he said.

So maybe that didn’t come out right. (He would get the line—“We choose truth over lies”—correct later in the evening.) But at least, shortly thereafter, he successfully told off a Breitbart reporter who was trying to promote the conspiracy theory that the media had misrepresented President Donald Trump’s remarks after the lethal violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

It was at the town hall later that evening, organized by the Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition, where we experienced the full Biden: block after block of 10-minute scatting ostensibly tethered to initial prompts, such as “What are your thoughts on criminal justice reform?,” glued together by an unfathomable number of “It’s not a joke,” “I’m not being facetious,” “The fact of the matter is,” and assorted other crutches.

Biden can talk policy in conversational ways and relate well to audiences for two hours. But what he can’t do is talk for two hours without making slips that the Trump campaign, or assorted Republican affiliates, will be taping, and that perhaps should give Democratic voters some (new) reasons to question the strength of his campaign: perceived electability.

Early on in the speech, he confused current German Chancellor Angela Merkel with deceased British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In describing America’s gradual, albeit imperfect, improvements toward the founders’ ideals, he said the following sentence: “As Barack says, you know, we bent the arc, the curve, toward justice.” Yes, President Barack Obama was known to cite something similar to that line.

And when discussing Trump’s tendency to overstate crowds and the warmth of receptions, he said, “Man, the last guy who did this thing about if you say the lie long enough people will believe it, is the guy—”

Summoning the few remaining atoms of restraint in his body, he cut himself off. “I won’t even make the comparison,” he said. “In another country. Anyway.”

But the line that’s received the most attention from the event, and rightfully so, came when he was talking about education: “We have this notion that somehow if you’re poor, you cannot do it. Poor kids are just as bright, just as talented, as white kids.” You could feel it as he thought Oh, shit in his head, and he quickly added: “Wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids, no, I really mean it, but think how we think about it.”

After the speech, I talked to Ed Fallon, a former state representative and progressive activist, who was in attendance.

“I just worry that someone who goes off like that, and goes all over the board, is going to get eaten alive by the tweeter-in-chief,” Fallon said. “Trump is the exception to the politician that can get away with that. I think it’s a liability to have that kind of inability to contain your thoughts, to keep any kind of direction going. Just because Trump gets away with it doesn’t mean Joe Biden can get away with it.”